HL Deb 12 July 1900 vol 85 cc1289-98


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is rather an important Bill, although we have the advantage of the fact that it conies up from the House of Commons with the unanimous support of that House, it having passed through all its stages there without a division. The object of the Bill is to limit the excessive amount of liability to which shipowners and dock-owners and others are subject under the present law. It has been under the consideration of all those who are interested for a considerable period, and the outcome of a conference between all the parties practically and financially interested is the present agreement, which has been carefully considered, and has been embodied in the Bill. The Bill has not only been before a Standing Committee of the House of Commons, but it has been thoroughly thrashed out in that House, with the assistance of the Solicitor General and the Board of Trade. The whole question, therefore, comes before your Lordships with very good credentials. It has the unanimous approval of the House of Commons and of the whole body of shipowners and dock-owners, harbour authorities, and other conservancy bodies throughout the United Kingdom. Under those circumstances it is not necessary for me to argue to your Lordships at any length upon the necessity of the measure. I could give your Lordships a number of instances to show that great hardship has been imposed upon both dock-owners and shipowners in respect of the unlimited liability to damage at present imposed upon them. Both parties desire that their liability shall be limited, and this Bill represents the agreement they have arrived at. The object of the Bill is, in the first clause, to limit the liability of shipowners in relation to "fixed objects"; and, in the second clause, to give a corresponding reciprocal relief in regard to liability for damages to dock-owners, harbour authorities, and others. The Bill does not interfere in any degree with the question of damages in respect of loss of life at sea. It does not put forward any new liability whatever. It asks, in the first clause, that the Section 503 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 shall be extended to "fixed objects." Under the law as it now stands, the liability of shipowners for damaged one to "property at sea" inflicted accidentally is limited to £8 per ton. It does not appear to men of common sense, and those interested in the; trade, and others that there is any reasonable objection to that limitation being extended to "fixed objects." I will read to your Lordships a few words from the section to which I have alluded. Subsection (1) of Section 503 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 enacts, that— The owner of a ship shall not be liable to damages beyond the following amounts:—'In respect of a damage to vessels, goods, merchandise, or other things, whether there be in addition loss of life or personal injury, or not, an aggregate amount not exceeding eight pounds for each ton of their ship's tonnage.' But, my Lords, no such limitation exists by law for damage to "land, fixed piers, docks, canals, wharves, or landing stages," and, as I have said, there does not appear to men of common sense any reason against such limitation. It is a very difficult thing to know what the value of docks and harbours and canals are at the present time. You cannot assess them by tons as you do ships. Now, this is not a new limitation, because I am informed that it actually exists in France at the present moment, and that legislation is in progress in other countries in the same direction. By the first clause of the Bill it is proposed to extend this provision of Section 593 of the Act of 1894 to the "fixed objects "I have mentioned. It is not a referential clause: it is perfectly plain and clear. It enacts that the limitation shall extend and apply to all cases where (without their actual fault or privity) any loss or damage is caused to property or rights of any kind, whether on land or on water, or whether fixed or movable, by reason of the improper navigation or management of the ship. I believe that as a matter of fact no one takes exception to that clause. The only difficulty that arises is that whilst the dockowner and the harbour authorities and the conservancy boards are willing to grant that limitation in the case of shipowners, they ask for some reciprocal legislation on their own account, on the ground of the large size and tonnage of the vessels now being built. Mr. Me Arthur, who had charge of the Bill in the House of Commons, speaking on the Second Reading, said— We recognise that the contention is a reasonable one, and therefore shipowners not only assent to that contention, bat they are willing to assist in every way the action of the dock authorities to have a clause to that effect inserted in the Bill in Committee. We are willing to concede to the dock authorities a corresponding limitation to that which we claim for the shipowners. The second clause of the Bill is the unanimous result of the deliberations of the shipowners and dockowners and others interested, and of a very useful discussion both in the Standing Committee and in Committee of the whole House, in which, although several Amendments were moved and some few were accepted, there was no division of opinion whatever and no division took place. The first clause of the Bill is very easy to follow, because it is simply an extension of the principle of the Act of 1894. The second clause is rather technical, and it may appear at first sight to be rather illogical; but I am bound to say that, having looked into the question myself before I took charge of the Bill, and having had some considerable knowledge of merchant shipping legislation during my connection with the Humber ports for twenty years, I believe that it is a good working agreement and is quite practicable. Under Clause 2, the "aggregate liability" of dock and harbour authorities and other conservancy boards will not exceed £8 per ton; but I wish to point out distinctly that the maximum liability will not be based on the damage done to any individual vessel or on the damage done to any dock, but on the tonnage of the For Second Reading Debate in the Commons, see The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. lxxx., page 1366; for Debate on Bill as amended by Standing Committee, see Vol. lxxxiv., p. 1226. largest ship which has been within the area over which such dock or other authority has jurisdiction within five years previous to the accident. This sum would be apportioned in any accident between one or more vessels that might be damaged, the damage being assessed on the actual value of the vessels and of the cargoes on board of them. I have here some instances of how that would work, but I do not think it is a wise thing on the Second Reading to give figures, because it is impossible for anyone to discuss them at the moment, and I therefore content myself with saying that in Committee I shall be perfectly ready to give the cases, and to show that whilst this provision may not seem very logical, we know exactly what are the results that will be incurred by the Bill, and we are perfectly prepared to meet them. There is one other point with regard to the second clause to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention. It is not thought fair that the maximum liability should be increased because some vessels of a very large size may have been within the area which do not usually come into the port; it is not considered reasonable that the measure of liability should be fixed by the fact of some very large vessel having accidentally come within the area for shelter, or just to load mails and passengers. Therefore there is a proviso to this clause that a ship is not to be deemed to be within the area by reason only that it has taken shelter within or passed through such area on a voyage between two places both situated outside that area, or has loaded or unloaded mails and passengers within the area. These latter words were expressly put in in the House of Commons to protect the port of Queenstown. My Lords, this agreement, as I have said, is the result of the unanimous decision of the men of business and practical common sense, men who alone are interested financially and practically in the limitation of liability, either as receivers of damages or as payers of damages, and they ask your Lordships to join with the House of Commons in giving it Parliamentary sanction. Before I leave this subject I should like to tell your Lordships what was the opinion of Her Majesty's Government by their authorised spokesman before the Bill left the House of Commons. Sir Edward Carson, speaking in Committee on the Bill as Solicitor General, said— Certainly the proposal to which exception is taken is not a logical or ideal proposal. The Board of Trade, however, have endeavoured to obtain as far as possible the views of the great shipowners and associations represented, and in the same way they have the opinion of the dockowners, that the proposal as to limitation is the only one they can agree upon; and it has been embodied. If the Hill is not passed there will be no limitation at all. And in replying later to a suggested Amendment, the Solicitor General said— The Government would not depart from their attitude of agreement with what was acceptable to all parties concerned. and I venture to hope that the Government will not depart from it in this House. Your Lordships will bear in mind that this Bill has nothing to do with loss of life at sea and imposes no now liability which does not exist under the present law. The second clause was submitted to the closest examination by the officials of the Board of Trade and by the Standing Committee on Trade in the House of Commons. It was thoroughly discussed in Committee of the whole House, and no division was taken upon the Bill. The Bill is based on mutual reciprocity and the terms of the agreement are in the Bill; and having regard to the credentials of the Hill and its unanimous adoption by the House of Commons, I feel fully justified in recommending the principle and clauses of the Bill to your Lordships' favourable consideration.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Lord Heneage.)


My Lords, I do not rise to object at all to the Second Reading of this Bill. I think that, as the shipowners and the dock authorities have come to an agreement that the liability of the dock authorities should be limited, your Lordships will be disposed to carry out that agreement. I only rise to mention a very small matter. I am speaking now in the interests of the dock authorities of Belfast. As I understand, the measure of liability is to be the tonnage of the largest vessel which in ordinary normal cases trades to a port. Your Lordships may perhaps know that in Belfast very large vessels are built, which, as soon as they are built and fitted out, go away and trade to other ports, and their tonnage is very much in excess of the tonnage of the ordinary vessels going to Belfast. Now, I should hope that as the House of Commons has made exception in favour of vessels which only unload mails at Queenstown, a similar exception may be made in favour of the docks of Belfast in regard to those enormously large vessels which are built there but do not trade to the port. I propose to submit to your Lordships an Amendment to carry that out, and I hope my noble friend will give it his favourable consideration.


My Lords, I rise to state to the House what the attitude of the Board of Trade will be in regard to the proposals now contained in this Bill. The noble Lord, I think, stated accurately the history of the circumstances under which this Bill is presented to the House in the form in which it now appears, and he told your Lordships that it had come to this House without a division in the other House of Parliament. I think that is accurate, but it will be entirely a mistake to suppose that the Bill as now presented to this House is in the same form or anything like the form in which its promoters introduced it into the other House of Parliament. The fact is that for a short Bill of the kind, it has, I think, been as much if not more changed and been the subject of more different changes than almost any other Bill of a similar length of which I have had experience. As introduced in the other House of Parliament it contained a clause limiting the liability of shipowners for damage to "fixed property"—and in fact, I think I may say all Kinds of property whether the property was on land or on water, whether it was fixed or movable—to the amount of £8 a ton. To that clause the then Attorney General —now known to us here as Lord Alver-stone—offered no opposition, but he did. on behalf of the Government oppose the second clause of the Bill, which altered the mutual liability for damage as between British and foreign shipowners, and that clause in consequence of the opposition of the Government was withdrawn in Grand Committee. When that stage had been reached the owners of docks put in their word and thought that, if there was to be this further limit of liability of shipowners to damage in regard to their property, there ought to be some reciprocity in the matter, and that they ought to have a limit of damage for which they might be made liable in the event of damage by the action of their servants to the property of the shipowners. To that principle the late Attorney General gave a general assent, but it is not easy to see the logic of the clause which has been devised. The noble Lord who introduced the Bill said quite frankly that when you look at it at first sight it seems to be illogical. I venture to suggest to the House that the more you look at it the more illogical it is likely to appear, and I think the remarks which the noble and learned Lord below the gangway has made show that this is a clause in the nature of a compromise, and when there is take going (so to speak) everyone wants to have a slice. Queenstown has protected itself by an Amendment in the other House; now there is a plea on behalf of Belfast; and, if the plea of Queenstown was logical and to be admitted, it seems to me it will be rather difficult to find a distinct principle against the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord. But, my Lords, the real case for this Bill is not I think the soundness or the logical nature of the provisions which are contained in it; the only case there is for it I think is that it is a matter of agreement as between the parties chiefly interested as the noble Lord says. Whether that is a sufficient reason for placing upon the Statute-book a Bill which even its own parents do not, I think, regard as perfect, and which they have been fully warned is a Bill which, as a matter of legal interpretation is full of doubt and full of difficulty, is a matter upon which I certainly expected that some of the legal talent in this House might have something to say. My Lords, the history of Clause 2, which is the clause to which I more particularly refer, is this. As I have said, when the liability of the shipowners to the dock-owners was being limited, the dock-owners asked that their liability to the shipowners should also be limited, and it was suggested, and, in fact, at one time agreed, that the liability of the dockowners should be fixed at a rate not exceeding— £8 for each ton of the tonnage of the largest registered British ship which, at the time of such loss or damage occurring, is, or within the period of five years previous thereto has been within the area over which such dock or canal owner, harbour authority, or conservancy authority, performs any duty or exercises any power. That was found not to be satisfactory, and the clause was amended by the Grand Committee so as to confine it to the largest ships which had traded to or from the port. But the clause was again amended by the House so that as the Bill now comes up to your Lordships it provides that the damage is to be based— On the tonnage of the largest ship which has been within the area over which such dock or other authority has jurisdiction within live years previous to the accident, with a proviso excusing vessels taking shelter or merely passing through the area. That last proviso is the one to which the noble and learned Lord alluded in his remarks to the House. I am sure the noble Lord in charge of the Bill did not intend to give an erroneous impression to the House, but he quoted some words of the present Solicitor General, as if the Government had in any way made themselves responsible for the Bill. That is not so, and so far from that being so, the present Attorney General, Sir Robert Finlay, remarked in Grand Committee "that the clause as it now stands would give a great deal of work to the lawyers," and "that he knew nothing analogous to it in law." In spite of that, as I have said, it is an agreement between the two chief interests principally concerned—the dock owners and the shipowners. It is a matter of compromise between them, a matter with which, as I have said, not only are they satisfied, but apparently, from the communications which have reached the Board of Trade, they are clearly desirous of seeing passed into law. And under those circumstance—as the legal profession contains many estimable men —if the dock-owners and the shipowners like as between themselves to run the risk of the litigation which they are warned will ensue, it does not seem to the Board of Trade that it is necessary for the Board of Trade to interfere and prevent this agreement being carried out. Therefore, I am instructed to say, on behalf of the President of the Board of Trade, that as he is perfectly aware that there would be considerable, in fact, I may say bitter, disappointment in shipping circles if this Bill were not passed, on the whole the Board of Trade are inclined to recommend the House to pass the Bill.


My Lords, I am very reluctant to interpose for a moment where everybody seems to be so harmonious, but I am bound to say that it seems to me that the second clause which has been referred to is both illogical and absurd, and I should think in practice it is hardly susceptible of being administered without a degree of litigation which, however profitable to those engaged in it, I should have thought would not be of advantage to those persons who are principally interested. Your Lordships, I think, can hardly take in—no one, I think, would be able to take in without considerable reflection on the subject—the sort of proposition which is to be laid down in order to limit liability. The question of so much per ton is, of course, not very easy to apply to docks or harbours. They are not weighed, and you cannot tell what their tonnage is, which is the proposition with which you have to deal. Then, in order to get rid of that difficulty the reciprocal advantage by the dock or harbour authority is that they are to have when the accident occurs a calculation about what is the largest British ship that has been there within a period of five years. I can imagine a great many interesting controversies arising upon that. Then somebody suggested that if you take five years and find out all the ships that have ever gone in and out of the docks during that period, and then consider which was the biggest of them, and take that as your standard, some huge ship which came into the docks simply through stress of weather would be included. Then comes this interesting compromise, "Well, although it has been within the area during the five years, you must consider that it has not been within the area during the five years," and so on. That is the sort of legislation which your Lordships are asked to pass. As I say, I do not like to interfere when everybody is so harmonious, but I can only say that there is one class of Her Majesty's subjects who do not appear to have been considered in this compromise—namely, Her Majesty's judges, who will have the administration of this piece of legislation. It is therefore not without protest that I abstain from moving the rejection of such a clause as this. It seems to me to be an extremely absurd clause, extremely difficult to administer, and I cannot help thinking that it is not a particularly good precedent to say that because two interests in the country are agreed upon it the Houses of Parliament should be induced by reason of that agreement to pass legislation which nobody can venture to say is either reasonable or profitable.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House to-morrow.